Today on Politico there’s a long and fascinating feature comparing and contrasting Rep. Ilhan Omar with another freshman Democratic congressman from Minnesota, relative moderate Dean Phillips. The ultimate point of it, in my reading, is that progressives like Omar stand a far greater chance of both influencing the discourse and paving the way for real legislation, while centrists like Phillips are milquetoast to the core. Read this paragraph about the latter, which comes just after a section in which he seems loathe to criticize Trump and even praises him:
The second thing that distinguishes Phillips is his allergy to labels. He talks frequently of “outcomes” but can prove impossible to pin down on policy details, the result of a studied effort to avoid being typecast either as a wild-eyed progressive or a weak-kneed moderate. (According to the Minneapolis City Pages, he told voters at an event last year, “I’m pro-life. And I’m also pro-choice. And I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I think it’s really important to be both. And I celebrate both.”)
Could anything be less inspiring than that? He also, of course, doesn’t support a Green New Deal or Medicare for All. Omar comes off as far more dynamic, but the quote that’s going to make the rounds, about Barack Obama, has already found its way to Twitter:
For those who can’t read the tweet:
As she saw it, the party ostensibly committed to progressive values had become complicit in perpetuating the status quo. Omar says the “hope and change” offered by Barack Obama was a mirage. Recalling the “caging of kids” at the U.S.-Mexico border and the “droning of countries around the world” on Obama’s watch, she argues that the Democratic president operated within the same fundamentally broken framework as his Republican successor.
“We can’t be only upset with Trump. … His policies are bad, but many of the people who came before him also had really bad policies. They just were more polished than he was,” Omar says. “And that’s not what we should be looking for anymore. We don’t want anybody to get away with murder because they are polished. We want to recognize the actual policies that are behind the pretty face and the smile.”
That is absolutely the most overt criticism of Obama by an elected Democrat that I’ve ever heard, and proves that, no matter what you think of Omar, she is absolutely a new breed of headlong progressive. And of course, she’s right—Obama undertook drone strikes at record levels, and he deported at record levels. A lot of what Trump has accomplished so far, on those fronts and others, comes from the expanded powers of the executive branch for which we have Obama to thank. As painful as it may be for some liberals, there are valid comparisons to be made here, even if Trump is clearly a far worse prospect for America. More than that, these comparisons matter, particularly if this country wants to avoid a similar fate with the next president.
One last item of note: Omar almost seems to seek out the spotlight, and a topic of particular interest in this piece was how some of it may actually be strategic. In her own words:
“As much as other people are uncomfortable, I’m excited about the change in tone that has taken place that is extremely positive. The insightful conversations that we’re having about money and its influence in Washington. And my ability, I think, to agitate our foreign policy discussions in a way that many of my colleagues who have been anti-intervention, anti-war have been unable to do in the past,” she says. “So, I’m OK with taking the blows if it means it will ignite conversations that no one was willing to have before.”
The whole feature is worth reading, but that, to me, should be the real takeaway: Omar is ruffling feathers with a purpose, because she—like so many others in the country, but unlike almost anyone in Congress—believes we live in a time when patience and incrementalism and walking around on tiptoes is just more fuel for a broken, disastrous status quo. On one hand, she is just honestly stating her beliefs, but on the other, the reaction proves how that simple act, when it comes from a progressive woman of color, can be positively radical.